Best of Lists

Florida's West Coast Sweet Spots

Where To Have A Ball And Get Away From It All


LIKE NIGHT AND DAY, the glitz and glamor of Florida's East Coast gives way to nature and nurture on the state's laidback Florida West Coast. Here, crowd-free white sand beaches stretch along the Gulf of Mexico; vast preserves are packed with more fish, bird, and wildlife than people; and smaller cities wear their history and charm on their sleeves.

All this makes Florida's Gulf Coast the place to have a ball when you want to get away from it all. Here is a sampling of 10 sweet spots, listed south to north, to navigate to this fall.

Buck Key Preserve, Captiva Island

Otters, bald eagles and stingrays - oh my! These and other sea, bird and marine life are the primary residents of this nearly two-mile-long barrier island adjacent to Captiva. Paddling is the best way to see these critters, plus explore tunnels of mangrove forests and dense hardwood hammocks that native peoples once called home. Kayaking is the most popular, yet paddle boarding is possible, too. You can go it alone; the four-mile-long Buck Key Paddle Trail is marked. Watersports companies also offer guided tours. Either way, plan for at least a two-hour trip.

Where to Dock: Tween Waters Island Resort & Spa

Something spotted at Ding Darling | Florida Sweet Spots | Marinalife
Something Spotted at Ding Darling Wildlife Education Boardwalk

Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Sanibel Island

Walk on the wild side at this 6,400-plus acre wildlife refuge. Choose from three trails, all off scenic Wildlife Drive. Indigo is a four-mile loop where the Wildlife Education Boardwalk boasts scat and track replicas to easily identify critters that may have crossed paths. The 0.5-milk Wulfert Keys Trail leads to an overlook of San Carlos Bay where fishermen once crabbed. The Calusa Shell Mound Trail, true to name, is a 0.4-mile loop that circles seashell heaps left by ancient inhabitants. While the trails are delightfully off the beaten track, do pack a smartphone. QR iNature Trail Code signs along the way provide even more information about the refuge's sights.

Where to Dock: Sanibel Marina

Cayo Costa State Park, Lee County

Take a step into the past while enjoying the present on this island, located near Pine Island and west of Fort Myers, where you can socially distance on nearly nine miles of white sand beaches. Accessible only by boat, as well as kayaks and paddleboards available for rent, this was a favorite fishing ground of the early Calusa Indians. Archaeological digs here have unearthed shell mounds, bones and pottery. Today, saltwater fisherman can try their luck for tarpon, snook, snapper and pompano. Hiking, beach walking, shelling, swimming, snorkeling and birdwatching mean there's something here for everyone.

Where to Dock: Cayo Costa State Park

Boca Grande, Gasparilla Island

Big tarpon, and lots of them, are what you find at Boca Grande Pass, situated on the southern tip of Gasparilla Island State Park. This deep-water passage connects Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, and tarpon use this as a major maritime highway before and after spawning. It's no wonder this area is nicknamed the "Tarpon Capital of the World." Famous folks from Thomas Edison to George W. Bush have come here to drop a line. Catches average 90- to 130-pounds with 200-plus pounders not uncommon. Guides for hire can help turn a fishing trip into a catching experience.

Where to Dock: Boca Grande Marina

Sunset in Captiva by Jason Lindsey | Florida | Marinalife
Sunset in Captiva by Jason Lindsey


Man's best friend can find a place to romp in this seaside city located 20 miles south of Sarasota. Paw Park, a fenced play yard with nearby picnic tables, benches and showers, leads straight to the only beach in the county where dogs can run unleashed. You find lots for two-footed visitors to enjoy, too. Venice is known as the "Shark Tooth Capital" of the World. In fact, Brohard Park Beach, next to the Paw Park and south of Venice Pier, is one of the best places in town to hunt for these treasured teeth. For the best luck, go to where the waves break and scoop up the beach sand with a strainer or by hand. These fossilized fangs range in size from the length of a grain of rice to the diameter of a softball.

Where to Dock: The Crow's Nest Restaurant & Marina

Cortez, Manatee County

Maritime history buffs will want to visit this last of the traditional fishing villages on Florida's Gulf Coast. The Florida Maritime Museum, set in a restored 1912-built schoolhouse in the Cortez Nature Preserve, displays everything from old-time chronometers and barometers to historic boats and ship models, cork lures and hand-woven nets, and even stoneware moonshine jugs from the Prohibition Era. Make your own history. Several outfits here, in Sarasota Bay and Palma Sola Bay, offer half (four-hour), three-quarter (six-hour), and full-day (eight-hour) charter fishing trips. Inshore in the fall, expect to catch redfish and black drum, while offshore kingfish and wahoo are biting. November starts trout season -- including a good run of five-pound plus "gators."

Where to Dock: Cortez Village Marina (Formerly Bradenton Boat Club)

Boca Grande Lighthouse | Florida Sweet Spots | Marinalife
Boca Grande Lighthouse from The Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau

Anna Maria Island, Manatee County

The vibe is charming old-style Florida in the small resort city of Anna Maria, located at the tip of this seven-mile-long island 12 miles west of Bradenton. Pine Avenue, in the heart of town, boasts a plethora of quaint shops, galleries and eateries. The Historical Society Museum is here too, as is the 1911-built, nearly 700-foot long City Pier. From here, watch fishermen cast lines, boats cruise in and out of Tampa Bay, pelicans plunge into the water for their dinner, and spectacular sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico.

Where to Dock: Bradenton Beach Marina


The arts are alive in this quirky artist community located five miles west of St. Petersburg on Boca Ciega Bay. The Gulfport Art Walk takes place on Beach Boulevard, on the first Friday and third Saturday of the month, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. year-round. There are local authors and artists, watercolorists, and wearable-makers, plus hand-made candles, soaps, floral pieces, and more for sale. The culinary arts are something to savor here too. Every Tuesday, Gulfport Fresh Market is notable for its fresh produce and seafood, baked breads, and local spice mixes. Beyond this, the city has won awards for its smorgasbord selection of restaurants, many of which serve fresh-caught seafood.

Where to Dock: City of Gulfport Municipal Marina


Main Street USA is the charming description of what you find in the center of this historic Gulf Coast city. No big box or name brand stores here. Instead, this walkable thoroughfare is full of shops selling custom jewelry, antiques, furnishings and art of all types. Stop to wet your whistle one block off the west side of Main at The Brewery, Florida's oldest microbrewery. The city's name, coined by early Scottish settlers, comes from the Gaelic term for Edinburgh. Enjoy a taste of the Scots while here. The Dunedin Golf Club offers a challenging 18-hole course. Kids can play on "Nessie," a larger than life-size version of the Loch Ness Monster located in Dunedin's water-filled sprayground north of Main Street. The pier at sunset is breathtaking.

Where to Dock: Marker 1 Marina

Tarpon Springs

The name of this Gulf Coast seaport sounds like fishing is the main game in town. Yet, there's much more. Located less than an hour north of St. Petersburg, this is also the sponge capital of the world. Greek immigrants more than a century ago introduced the collection technique of diving for sponges. The heyday of harvesting these prized multicell animals is long gone, but you can soak up the past via a visit to the Sponge Docks & Sponge Museum. Local shops sell sponges, too. A Greek influence remains from the Mediterranean-style architecture in some parts of town to the spanakopita (spinach pie), avgolemono soup (lemon-flavored chicken soup), and baklava (honey and nut pastry). And yes, there are tarpon aplenty here, too.

Where to Dock: Turtle Cove Marina

Related Articles
Florida's Fall Calendar of Events 2022

From the Gulf to the Atlantic and every bay in between, boaters and their families have plenty to look forward to on the Florida coasts this fall. Start the season with a couple of pints at Oktoberfest and spooks at a haunted ghost tour, throw in a boating event or two, and round it out with a lighted boat parade.


Black trolley with "Ghosts and Gravestones" logo on the side
Source: Adonis Paul Hunter


St. Augustine


Learn about the haunted history in the oldest city in the United States through the lens of the undead. Get tickets for haunted pub crawls, trolly tours and walking tours. You’ll get in the Halloween spirit and learn the stories behind St. Augustine’s most spirited locations from professional storytellers with just the right amount of spook. Kids are welcome on trolly and walking tours, and pets are allowed on walking tours! Check out Ghost Tours of St. Augustine or Ghosts & Gravestones.

Where to Dock: Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor

Band walking in a parade playing tubas
Oktoberfest | Credit Pixabay


Jacksonville Beach, Tampa

October 7-9

Kick off the fall season with Oktoberfest on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast with Beaches Oktoberfest and Oktoberfest Tampa. With Tampa’s event ranking in the top five in the country and Jacksonville Beach’s being the largest in the state, you’re sure to find the brew for you!

Where to Dock: Fort George Island Marina (Jacksonville), Westshore Yacht Club (Tampa)


Apollo Beach

October 20-23

Just across the Bay from Tampa and St. Pete, Apollo Beach is teeming with wildlife on land and on the water. At this four-day festival, you’ll find a free expo with nature organizations and artwork, daily field and boat trips to sites not accessible to the public, and expert wildlife and conservation seminars. Nature aficionados won’t want to miss this opportunity at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Suncoast Youth Conservation Center.

Where to Dock: Apollo Beach Marina


West Palm Beach

October 22

Has your dog always wanted to be an (un)professional racer? Now is Fido’s time to shine! Register your pup for a day full of zoomies, Doggie Costume Contest, and plenty of BBQ and entertainment for the whole family. Proceeds benefit Furry Friends Adoption, Clinic & Ranch.

Where to Dock: Palm Harbor Marina

Jazz band on stage under bright lights playing instruments



October 14-16

No matter your music taste, you’re sure to find something to jam out to at this three-day festival, from smooth jazz and blues to funk and zydeco. You’ll find plenty of vendors at the festival, and Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood offers old-school charm and Latin American eateries. St. Petersburg offers hip breweries, coffee shops and more.

Where to Dock: Clearwater Beach Municipal Marina



October 22

Join in a celebration of life at the Water Lantern Festival this fall. Start the day with food trucks, music and family- friendly fun, and end by releasing your personalized lantern on the water at sunset.

Where to Dock: Marina Jack

Two dark grey mega-yachts docked at the boat show
Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show | Credit Informa Markets


Fort Lauderdale

October 26-30

The largest in-water boat show in the world offers viewings and demos of everything from superyachts to kayaks and fishing gear. Stop by the Superyacht Village to sip a cocktail on one of the most luxurious boats in the world, the Convention Center for watersport and innovative boating gear demos, and take the family to a kid-friendly fishing seminar.

Where to Dock: 17th Street Yacht Basin, Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, Pier 66 Hotel & Marina



October 28-30

Join the Old Naples Waterfront Association in the historic center to kick off stone crab season! Eat stone crab to your heart’s content in a prime harvesting location of the tasty crustacean and enjoy plenty of entertainment, from live music to local galleries and craft vendors. florida-seafood-festivals-calendar

Where to Dock: Naples Bay Resort & Marina


close up view of a seafood platter with vegetables, salmon, scallops, and shrimp
Florida Seafood Festival | Source VISIT FLORIDA



November 4-5

Cruise to the charming Apalachicola, tucked away among expansive wildlife reserves and just a bay away from the Gulf. Along with some of the best oysters and seafood you can eat, the whole family will enjoy a parade, carnival, Blessing of the Fleet, hours of live music every day, and competitions such as the oyster shucking contest and blue crab races.  

Where to Dock: Apalachicola Marina


Fernandina Beach

November 5

Celebrate the annual return of the North Atlantic right whale to the coasts of Florida and Georgia to give birth and nurse their young in historic Fernandina Beach. Learn about threats and conservation efforts for these gentle giants, participate in a beach clean-up, and enjoy family fun at educational exhibits, athletic events, and food and craft vendors.

Where to Dock: Oasis Marinas at Fernandina Beach


Key West

November 6-13

Cruise to Key West for three days of epic racing and a full week of family-friendly fun. Don’t miss the World’s Fastest Boat Parade on the first Sunday, or any three of the races throughout the week: the Truman Waterfront Cup, Southernmost Continental Champion, and Championship. Use downtime to explore the Race Village at Truman Waterfront and try out local pubs, shops and restaurants.

Where to Dock: Conch Harbor Marina

crowd on the beach admiring a large sand sculpture
Credit JJS Photo



November 11-14

Visit Siesta Key Beach to watch sculptors from around the world turn piles of white sand into sculpted masterpieces. Professional competitors have 24 hours to build their pieces, and visitors have the chance to participate in amateur sand-sculpting competitions and see the masters at work.  

Where to Dock: Safe Harbor Siesta Key



November 19-20

Art connoisseurs and amateurs alike will love this boutique art competition and festival in the scenic cultural center of Sarasota. Masters of different media—ceramics, jewelry, graphic art, painting, and more—will put the best of their work on display for patrons to browse and buy to their hearts’ content.

Where to Dock: Marina Jack

Mansion at night-time with palm trees filled with warm white holiday lights
St. Augustine Night of Lights | Source Om Flickr


St. Augustine

November 19-January 31

Ready to get in the holiday spirit? Cruise back to St. Augustine as early as before Thanksgiving for a dazzling display of more than 3 million lights in the historic district. Gaze in awe at the twinkly lights and find photo ops at the Bridge of Lions and the Christmas tree at the center of Plaza de la Constitución. Enjoy the sounds of the All Star Orchestra on the first night and stroll to businesses open later than usual.

Where to Dock: St. Augustine Municipal Marina



Miami Beach

December 1-3

Since the 1970s, this annual art extravaganza brings works of contemporary and modern pieces by renowed and emerging artists from around the world to showcase in Miami. Held at the Miami Beach Convention Center, for three days the public can gaze upon unique masterpieces presented by leading galleries from five continents.

Where to Dock: Sunset Harbour Yacht Club


Key Largo, FL

December 1-4

This annual four-day event showcases classic antique yachts, automobiles and aircraft to celebrate those who restore vintage collections. Experience a full schedule of events kicking off with a welcome party and dinner buffet on Thursday, then a weekend packed with drive-bys, shows, dinners, cocktail receptions, a costume party and more.

Where to Dock: Ocean Reef Club


With so many spectacular lighted boat parades on the coasts of Florida, we couldn’t choose just one! Dock at any of these coastal towns on the first three Saturdays of December to ring in the season on the festive Florida waterfronts.

Palm trees lined with warm white holiday lights and a sunset with boats in the background
Credit Florida Historic Coast

Daytona Beach Christmas Boat Parade
December 3

Palm Coast Yacht Club Holiday Boat Parade
December 3

The Seminole Hard Rock Winter Boat Parade
December 10

St. Augustine Regatta of Lights
December 10

Naples Bay Christmas Boat Parade
December 10

Northwest Cape Coral 2nd Annual Boat Parade
December 17

Read More
Maritime Museums in the Caribbean

The Caribbean is well known for its clear blue tropical waters. But as rich as it is in beauty, the islands have an even greater wealth of his- tory. Luckily, museums are located across the region to share the stories and significant events that can provide glimpses of what maritime life was like throughout the years. Their exhibits, relics and archives will have you looking at the region in a whole new light.

Here are eight Maritime Museums: 

National Museum of Bermuda Flagpole


You can find this treasure trove of artifacts in the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles east of North Carolina, the nearest land mass to this collection of islands. The museum shows how maritime events shaped the history, people and culture of Bermuda. It is located at the historic Royal Naval Dockyard within Bermuda’s largest fort. Exhibits cover 500 years of the country’s history from how the German U-505 submarine was captured by the U.S. Navy and concealed in Bermuda to how sailing races from North America to Bermuda have influenced the development of ocean-worthy boats and blue water sailing. Be sure to experience the museum’s unique spaces by strolling through the two-story boat loft to catching a dolphin show at the Keep Pond Terrace to taking in the expansive ocean views at the flagpole.

Where to Dock: Kings Wharf or Heritage Wharf


Turks and Caicos National Museum opened in 1991 to store artifacts found in the excavation of the Molasses Reef shipwreck, an unknown Spanish ship that sunk in 1515 on the Caicos Bank. The museum spans two locations: the Guinep House on Grand Turk Island, believed to be more than 180 years old and named after the large guinep tree on its property, and the Village at Grace Bay on Providenciales, where visitors can tour the Heritage House, an historically correct rendition of a typical 1800s Caicos dwelling. In addition to showcasing shipwreck artifacts, visitors also learn about the evolution of The Grand Turk Lighthouse as well as the rise and fall of the island’s salt industry. On Museum Day, the first Saturday in November, visitors can tour the exhibits for free, and in May, the Village at Grace Bay holds a “Back in the Day” event with activities reflecting historical life on the island.

Where to Dock: Blue Haven Resort & Marina

Map of the driving routes on the Grand Cayman Heritage Trail
Grand Cayman Heritage Trail Driving Routes | GCHT


If you like to take in history outdoors, these exhibitions are for you. The trail consists of 36 stops across all three islands (Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands) and is best traveled via car. Each stop is marked by a road sign that shares a notable historic event or contribution related to the maritime industry. Learn how turtling shaped the islands’ early economy, how ships were cleaned and repaired before boat lifts by a process called “careening”, and hear stories of notable shipwrecks. If you prefer to learn Cayman Island history in one place, you can check out the Cayman Islands National Museum, housed in Cayman’s oldest surviving public building, which has a series of permanent and rotating exhibits.

Where to Dock: The Barcadere Marina


Completed 500 years after Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of La Hispaniola, the Faro a Colon (aka The Columbus Lighthouse) is one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular attractions. Constructed in the shape of a Latin cross spanning the width of two soccer fields, the lighthouse was created to recognize the first “encounter between two worlds.” It includes a mausoleum that houses Christopher Columbus’ remains as well as a museum displaying original and replica artifacts from the time of Columbus’ voyage. The lighthouse also has a library containing documents and maps displaying some of the earliest drawings of the Americas.

Where to Dock: Marina Zarpar

Boats in the water with green hills in the background
Nelson's Dockyard | Source Alexa Zizzi


The Antigua Naval Dockyard, now named Nelson’s Dockyard, was built in the mid-1700s to serve as a strategic post and support the Royal Navy battle against the French and protect trade routes in the region. The dockyard officially closed in 1889 and reopened in 1961 as an historic site. In addition to exploring the dockyard, take advantage of the park’s 12 miles of hiking trails, two forts, and tours such as the “Rum in the Ruins” where you can listen to stories of the dockyard while sipping on a cocktail. If traveling by boat, get the best view of the gorgeous English Harbour and snag a slip at nearby Nelson’s Dockyard Marina, the only continuously working Georgian Era dockyard in the world.

Where to Dock: Nelson’s Dockyard Marina


Opened in 2020, the Bequia Heritage Museum includes the Boat Museum and Annexe that display and educate visitors about the boatbuilding and whaling industries as well as artifacts dating back to the period of the island’s European settlement. Vessels on display at the museum include a traditional Amerindian dug-out canoe and the decommissioned boat, Rescue, that was originally used for whaling.

Where to Dock: Bequia Marina

Curaçao Maritime Museum | Credit CP Hoffman


Located in a mansion built in 1729 on the Waaigat inlet, the Curaçao Maritime Museum shares with visitors the story and events that influenced Curaçao’s involvement in the maritime industry. Learn how trade ebbed and flowed in and out of Curaçao’s ports, reflective of the events happening around the world to the arrival of the first cruise ship in 1901 from New York, sparking the cruise tourism industry until the 1970s when air travel took over as the primary way for tourists to visit the island. Visitors can explore the museum at their own pace or take a guided tour.

Where to Dock: Seru Boca Marina


With a decent internet connection, you can visit the Grand Bahama Museum from the comforts of your remote anchorage or mooring. Bahamian history and culture are explored through digital exhibits ranging from the islands’ natural landscapes and the history of the port authority to the role the Bahamas played during the Golden Age of Piracy. Learn about the first recorded piece of mail sent from the Bahamas in 1761 and the evolution of mailboats. Or savor a dark and stormy while reading about the Bahamas’ role in the rum-running industry during U.S. Prohibition. The Grand Bahama Museum was originally housed at The Garden of the Groves but was unfortunately destroyed by weather and time. To reach a wider audience and share Bahamian history and culture, the museum decided to move to a digital platform.

Where to Dock: Grand Bahama Yacht Club or Flamingo Bay Hotel & Marina

Read More
This or That: Beaufort vs. Fernandina Beach



Fernandina Beach | credit Patrick Farrell


Beaufort lies on an inlet leading south to the Atlantic and is considered part of North Carolina’s “Inner Banks” and the Crystal Coast. The Crystal Coast spans 85 miles of stunning coastline in southern North Carolina, including 56 miles of protected beach of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.


Located on historic Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach is the northernmost city on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Visitors will find easy access to Jacksonville, the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, and coastal destinations in southern Georgia such as Cumberland Island.


Beaufort History | credit Dori Arrington


Established in 1709, Beaufort was originally known as Fishtown, having been a fishing village and port of safety since the late 1600s. In addition to fishing, Beaufort was a hub for whaling, lumber, shipbuilding and farming. The earliest settlers made their mark by building Bahamian and West Indian-style homes, and the Plan of Beaufort Towne can still be seen in a 12-block historic district.


First settled in 1562, this town on historic Amelia Island went through many transformations under eight flags before it became what it is today. After the Civil War, Fernandina Beach became a bustling seaport and popular destination, called “The Queen of Summer Resorts” by many Northerners. Today’s visitors find themselves surrounded by the town’s lovely relics of the past — an historic district, Civil War port and the first cross-state railroad remain.


Fernandina Beach | credit Deremer Studios LLC


Beaufort has a thriving scene for anglers. Cast your line off a dock downtown, book a charter or head north to Cedar Island Wildlife Refuge to catch flounder, trout and redfish. Boat tours and private charters are a popular way to experience the stunning views and wildlife of the Crystal Coast. See porpoises, dolphins and wild horses on the beach. Better yet, book with Cruisin’ Tikis Beaufort to imbibe while you observe. Dock at Beaufort Docks.


Pier fishing is huge on Amelia Island, and anglers should head to the George Crady Bridge, which spans one mile of Nassau Sound. Snag a variety of fish in the area, including redfish, whiting, seatrout, tarpon and flounder. Boaters can start aquatic excursions in either the Atlantic Ocean to the east or Amelia River to the west. Go on a solo adventure, or join a tour or charter by boat, kayak or watersport with the likes of Amelia River Tours, Amelia Adventures & Kayak or Riptide Watersports. Dock at Fernandina Harbor Marina.


Beaufort | credit Dori Arrington


History buffs will feel right at home in Beaufort. Visit the Beaufort Historic Site to learn the town’s story through nine preserved historic homes in the middle of town. Three different maritime museums, including the North Carolina Maritime Museum, and the Bonehenge Whale Center offer marine merriment for the whole family. And for a taste of Crystal Coast wildlife, head over to the Rachel Carson Reserve where wild horses and countless birds, reptiles and aquatic mammals roam free.


Fernandina Beach is known for its easy living. Amelia Island Welcome Center is a great place to revisit Fernandina’s history and plan your day. Make your way to Centre Street on the water to browse eclectic shops and bustling art galleries, taste wild-caught shrimp at a bistro, or grab a pint at the Palace Saloon, Florida’s oldest tavern. If you’re in town on a Friday, you might stumble upon Sounds on Centre, a local concert series.

Read More

Want to Stay In the Loop?

Stay up to date with the latest articles, news and all things boating with a FREE subscription to Marinalife Magazine!

Thanks for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Marinalife articles